By Noelle Hause, Ed.D., LPC, IMH-E
Kinship caregiving is the full-time care of a child by relatives such as grandparents, great-grandparents, adult siblings, aunts, uncles and stepparents; or other invested community members such as close family friends, tribal members and godparents.
Grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents, are in a unique position to provide connection to other relatives, family traditions, cultural identity, multigenerational storytelling, belonging and stability.
It is an opportunity for healing and the forward movement and reshaping of a child’s story.
Kinship grandparenting is also complex. It involves conflicting emotions, managing multiple roles, changes in resources, personal adjustments, legal involvement and managing the many relationships involved in the child’s life.
Acknowledging feelings of loss and grief are essential. Grandparents must navigate through the reality that their own child is unable to parent.
This may be the result of different challenges such as mental health, substance use, long-term physical or medical conditions, death or trauma. The accompanying emotions for these challenges can include shame, embarrassment, guilt, sadness, disappointment, anger, betrayal, denial and isolation, as well as feelings of ambivalence, worry and stress about raising another child.
At the same time, caregivers may feel relief for their child’s safety and hope for their long-term health and wellness. These emotions are not sequential or linear.
They may arise concurrently and repeatedly for many years, making it difficult to recognize and differentiate between the causes — at times, these emotions may appear to arise out of nowhere.
Grandparents are faced with managing multiple roles while simultaneously considering:
- their loyalties — “I want to support my own adult child but know my responsibility is to my grandchild”
- setting boundaries — “How will I provide firm boundaries related to visitation, phone calls, holidays?
- providing safety and protection — “Am I able to recognize when I am making decisions that could emotionally, psychologically or physically result in harm to the child?”
Sorting through these roles and obligations can be confusing, complicated and painful.
Kinship grandparenting changes and affects family dynamics — sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in challenging ways.
Grandparents are often entering a time in their lives when they are thinking about and planning for rest, downsizing, travel, time with friends and recreation.
Inviting an infant or young child into their homes with the prospect that they may spend the next 15 or even 20 years raising them can often feel daunting and overwhelming.
It can also exhaust their resources of finances, time and energy.
Shifting priorities can test the reality that grandparents are developmentally progressing and may have limited physical abilities, stamina and energy.
Caregivers often put the needs of those for whom they are caring above their own, especially during stressful times. However, this is not a sustainable practice and grandparents will need to attend to self-care and will require enhanced support more than ever.
There are times in which grandparents need to make serious life changing decisions related to custody, medical power of attorney, adoption, wills and legal protection for their child. These are difficult tasks that require emotional, financial and professional resources.
The determination of who will have custody of the child or how time will be shared in instances where there are multiple parties vying for custody can be convoluted. There could be multiple grandparents or other relatives desiring to care for the child.
In the perfect circumstance, all adults would work together in the best interest of the child.
But it is possible for multiple relatives to work against each other — not because they are trying to be difficult, but because they truly believe they would be the best caregiver or that living with another caregiver would not be the best option for the child’s well-being.
Strategies to Adopt
Approaches and strategies to cope with these challenges include accessing opportunities for personal support and social connection with friends, relatives and kinship or grandparenting groups.
Self-care should be prioritized by establishing time for regular medical and dental care, personal physical care such as exercise and hair appointments, hobbies, recreational activities and other pastimes.
Professional services that can assist grandparents in navigating specific challenges can be sought for legal advice, personal counseling, parenting and financial planning.
Fostering agencies can assist grandparents with referrals for professional and financial resources.
If you are a kinship grandparent seeking these resources, be specific about the help you need. If you find it difficult to create boundaries with friends or relatives, be sure to identify that as an area of need. Your willingness to share your situation and resulting feelings may lead to opportunities for support and comfort, sharing and creative problem solving.
Kinship grandparenting can be a rewarding experience and a wonderful opportunity to change long-term health and wellness for your grandchild. Yet, it can also be an ongoing emotionally, psychologically and physically difficult undertaking.
Identifying, working with and — in some instances — leaning on personal and professional allies will ease the weight of responsibility and obligation you feel in your role as a kinship grandparent — freeing you in ways that will be most helpful in cultivating a strong, responsive, nurturing and healing relationship with your grandchild. A relationship that will not only benefit your grandchild, but you as well.
Noelle Hause, Ed.D., LPC, (IMH-IV)-C, is an Irving Harris Infant Mental Health Fellow graduate and has provided infant and early mental health services, including supervision, training and consultation.